Political Critique of Lakoff

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Political Critique of Lakoff



Remember, remember, the Fifth of November.


Not that it will be just various criticisms of course.

Defenses and disagreements with various criticisms are all part of the larger and collective process of 'critique'.


My criticism of Lakoff is his politics. His response as a political activist to where we find ourselves. Not a criticism of the 'content' of his politics- the agendas that are proposed. Nor a criticism that Lakoff's theoretical understandings take you to any particular place. Because you can hitch whatever agendas you like behind them.

There is nothing inherent in the theoretical understandings to limit how far you want to go, or think is a minimum necessity, or where to start.


The most fundamental insight one gets from reading Lakoff is not the concept of 'frames' that he is best known for in political circles. 'Framing' in common usage is what supports and directs an argument. It may well entail rhetorical devices that are less than explicit or even 'subtextual'. But that commonly understood 'framing' is entirely about what goes into rational argumentation.

Frames that Lakoff talks about are cognitive constructs- 'cognitive' in that the processes that put them together are not primarily concious thought processes. Rational thought process is part of 'what goes in'.... but only part. And the overall construct is not some kind of distilled product of rational/concious argumentation. Nor is it it 'irrational,' anything like 'insinctual'. And it is highly interactive between our brains and our social environment. Just not interactive/concious, or some kind of parallel or anolog of rational argumentation, or for that matter like any kind of 'discussion.'

It is this concept of political thought as first and primarily cognitive, rather than being wrapped entirely around rational argumentation, which is the most important understanding Lakoff's discourse brings to the table.

This take on political understanding is not in the least new or unique to Lakoff and his colleagues. I came to a similar conclusion just as an observing and still quite young political animal with no intellectual or theoretical background of any kind to support me. The first theory I came across that there was some crossover was some years later, and it was in the phenomenology of space. Later I came across Perre Bordieu and the concept of habitus, which was wholy sociological, rather than rooted in study ot the processes of the brain in which Lakoff and others are rooted.

Bordieu and similar thinkers must be at least 30 years ago by now. I still find the concept of habitus to be as useful for me as Lakoff. Though I am learning and adding from thinking about it from the angle of understanding the thought processes themselves. And it matters a lot that Lakoff is a key part of a current discussion and a political practice.

But not only are Lakof'fs insights not as new as the might seem for social and behavioural sciences. Even more basic as a predecessor and precedent: straight up marketing. Marketers have known for decades that persuasion, allegiances and all that stuff are first of all congnitive processes rather than rational ones... and are worked on at that level. Sidepoint and small point: one of the things that bugs me about Lakoff's man with a mission spiel is that he often chides the left with the success of the Right. So far so good. But he attributes that success to intellectuals and leaders of the Right using 'brain science'. That is just bunk. The Right has been succeeding since long before any of them would have known a thing about cognitive sciences.

Understanding the brain and cognitive science just deepens understanding the political behaviour of people. And I think it is probably the best way to introduce people who struggle with the concepts and are still stuck in a crippling rational Enlightenment view of how people behave in the civic and political space. And its a good place to start in no small part because of Lakoff. Lakoff's general discussion, and in particular Lakoff's attention to what is wrong the rational Enlightenment understanding of political behaviour.


Question is, what to do about it?

Lakoff has his prescription of course.


So after Lakoff devoting attention to how the Right throws resources at the back room 'persuasion shops,' and doing it in a highly organized fashion, he calls on progressives to 'be more aware of framing'......  to not be rolled over because we are stuck in rationalist Enlightenment communications, talking to people that do not hear.

That is it?

It is definitely good and necessary advice. And more than that, the more it is understood and discussed, the more often it is going to be applied by progressives who have a role in their organizations' communications.

But it is the activism of voluntarism: spread the good word. Do better. Lakoff does frequently enough deconstruct and prescribe on what the communications and narratives of Democrats and other organizations. But his own narrative to his audience, frames communications and what you can do about it, as if it is all about talking to your neighbours. How to speak in a way that is more effective. How to write better letters to the editor.

That is all well and good, and better than nothing. But as an activist who is engaged around the outreach of messages by organizations, Lakoff bloody well knows that the battles and the work that needs to be done is in mass communications. Mass communications is the endeavour of organizations.

The closest Lakoff gets to this is that he obliquely acknowledges that progressives will never have the resources to throw into the battle that the Right had and has- and we have to play catch up first. The unvoiced answer is that we'll match them with the power of the grassroots.

I agree. And not just that it is necessary, but quite doable. The Right did it with lots of resources and elite organizations. We have a very few think tanks, and more diffused organizational capabilities. But how we do it differently needs to be idenitified.

Voluntarism and diffuse take-up of ideas about how to do political work just do not cut it.


Making it official: as monologue starting point, I have nothing more to say.


Sorry I'm unable to contribute much to this thread at the moment, Ken, but I have been skimming it.



Dont Think of an Elephant is the most accessible of Lakoff's books. All of his later books are pitched at activists, but this one is the most so. I'm currently reading the most recent, Political Mind, which goes into both the political/moral thought dynamics, and the coginitve science in more depth. But its still a book totaly for the lay folk, and there is little or no jargon.

Whether in his books, frequent essays in the blogosphere, or in his touring talks, Lakoff always has a narrative about how the Right got where it is. Dozens of well funded think tanks running back to the 1960's, where the intellectual elite sit down to hammer out common ground, work around differences, and most of all: the groundwork of communication and greasing the way through personal contact and training in the media.

The parties of the right- in the US or Canada have done virtually none of the hard and politically explosive work of opening up new territory. That has been done outside of them. The transformed Republican Party, Reform, and the Conservatives all worked skillfully to get where they are. But that wass primarily organizational prowess, political strategy, and its execution. There is a mistaken idea on the Left that they also got where they are with gutsy and risky politics. Not so. They only had to use the openings others made for them.

Lakoff's descriptive history is excellent for making this concrete. The discipline, the setting aside of fundamental ideological differences as great as we have on the left, and the 'get-to-it' is highly instructive. As is the feature of Lakoff's expertise: how they went about developing the frames to support their political agendas.

My objection above that he erroneously chalks it up to their 'use of brain science' has no material impact on the understanding. Replace 'brain science' with 'understanding of cognitive processes'- whatever the background of that understanding- and it means exactly the same thing.



Interested Observer Interested Observer's picture

What about something similar to Avaaz as an organizational structure? Not really sure of details though. 

George Victor

This thread mystifies the political divisions within America (and increasingly, Canada) . For those bothering to purchase Lakoff's little book, under "What the Right Wants", the reader finds it's "nothing less than a radical revolution in how America and the rest of the world functions. The vehemence of the culture war provoked and maintained by conservatives is no accident. For strict father morality to gain and maintain political power, disunity is required (ed note...and what a hotbed of disunity hereabouts).

"First, there is economic disunity, the two-tier economy with the 'unworthy' poor remaining poor and serving the 'deserving' rich. But to stay in power the conservatives need the support of many of the poor. That is, they need a significant percentage of the poor and middle class to vote against their economic interests...What they have done is to create, via framing and language, a link between strict father morality in the family and religion on the one hand and conservative politics on the other. This conceptual link must be so emotionally strong that it can overcome economic self-interest.

"Their method for achieving this has been the cultural civil war - a civil war carried out  with everything short of live ammunition - pitting Americans with strict father morality (called conservatives) against Americans with nurturant parent morality (the hated liberals), who are portrayed as threatening the way of life and the cultural, religious, and personal identities of conservatives.

"Conservative political and intellectual leaders faced a challenge in carrying out their goals. They represented an economic and political elite, but they were seeking the votes of middle- and lower-class working people. They needed, therefore, to identify conservative ideas as populist and liberal/progressive ideas as elitist- even though the reverse was true. ... Through the work of their think tank intellectuals, their language professionals, their writers and ad agencies, and their media specialists, conservatives have worked a revolution in thought and language over thirty to forty years...Without the cultural civil war, the conservatives cannot win."


And of course, anyone looking at the new attack ads on all those leaders, all weak failures as father figures, Big Daddy Steve comes out as the only one to follow. 

The political game in Canada is being played out according to a forty-year plan, devoloped in the U.S of A.  Conservatives have been drawing their campaign thinkers from south of the 49th since Mike Harris in '95.  And someone asked why Canadians should be interested in U.S. politics.  

The next chapter is "What Unites Progressives"  , something that should be required reading on babble.Wink

What about Avaaz?     What about a letter to the editor?   What about deciding where the electorate are really at  ...what liberal populism (Lakoff says those should be our policies)  looks like? 

George Victor

Coming up in a bit, "What Unites Progressives."   It is a predictably short section in elephants.